March 1, 2009
October 18, 2013
Today and Tomorrow
10/18/2013 by Clarence Tsui
The Bottom Line
A cliché-laden tale offering too few insights about urban malaise among young migrant workers in Beijing.
Chinese director Yang Huilong’s feature debut follows three twenty-somethings navigating their lives in bustling Beijing.
It’s perhaps apt that two of the major onscreen emotional breakdowns in Today and Tomorrow involve characters bawling their eyes out while singing well-known musical numbers about dislocation and disappointment. Yang Huilong’s directorial debut about the three disfranchised youngsters in Beijing is abundant in second-hand emotions and lacking in original ideas in both aesthetics and narrative — and most devastatingly, it’s missing a genuine understanding of and empathy toward the have-nots cast to the wayside as China lurches towards its glaring capitalist future.
Today and Tomorrow betrays a wide range of influences from yesteryears: the handheld camera work depicting angst-ridden, lustful young people living in gloomy rooms harkens back to the work of Sixth Generation Chinese filmmakers like Lou Ye and Wang Xiaoshuai, while the TV melodrama gets a look-in with plot points about characters choosing between profit and principle (think Teng Huatao’s hit series Wo Ju) and caricatured characters (the prostitute with a heart of gold; excessively effeminate fashion designers). The film has been given some festival pedigree after its bow in Tokyo International Film Festival’s Asian Future section, but its middling mix of mainstream and alternative approaches might put off viewers of both cinematic camps.
Set in the soon-to-be-demolished migrant-workers ghetto of Tangjialing in Beijing’s northwestern outskirts, the film revolves around three disillusioned provincial-born twenty-somethings whose miserable material existence in the Chinese capital makes them part of the “ant tribe.” No need to fret for those who don’t know the backdrop and the term: Yang has made sure viewers will understand everything by playing out official announcements about the demolition plans — not just once, but three times throughout the film — and also an oddly-inserted radio program news bulletin snippet about the underemployed and underpaid workers toiling in the city. It’s the kind of exposition that betrays a lack of elliptical approach towards the story — a formalist flaw that mirrors the story that follows.
The story begins with a couple, the jobless Jie (Wang Taodie) and the fashion-design college graduate Ranran (Shu Yao) moving into a cramped room next to their friend Wang Xu (Tang Kaikin) — the first time the pair have had a space to their own, and a footing that might allow them to make inroads into a stable life in Beijing. Needless to say, it’s a greasy social pole they’re trying to scale; Ranran is forced to endure the advances of the tailor she is an apprentice to, while Wang’s dreams of becoming a CEO are constantly upended by either his conscience (when he refuses to partake in crooked practices as an insurance salesman) or his intellect (when he saves himself from a pyramid scheme unfolding in a disintegrating back-alley room). And Jie does, well, mostly nothing — with his main vocation being lamenting about having done nothing.
And so this triumvirate of jaded young minds march on, their enthusiasm dimmed and hopes trampled with Jie’s seemingly ill-advised attempts to sell his girlfriend’s portfolio to established designers, while Wang’s affection for a streetwalker (Yin Shanshan) only end in stones being thrown and flats being emptied out. So far, so realistic — until the characters’ anguish is somehow resolved, all thanks to humility and human persistence.
If this sounds uplifting to the point of being dogmatic, one is to be reminded that Today and Tomorrow begins with the aforementioned public-information announcement (”Let us create a wonderful future!”) and ends with an upward-looking shot of the Chinese national flag fluttering in the wind in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. It would be erroneous to daub Yang’s film as propaganda, but it’s certainly fair to say the film, like state ideology, which praises resilience and suppresses rebellion, reduces a social problem into this simple, hope-springs-eternal discourse.
But what’s most disturbing is how the film fails to connect with the downtrodden when it posits itself as a champion of the underdogs. In one of the final scenes of the film, Wang Xu — who is happily working away in a small glass bottle factory — is asked by a middle-aged colleague why a university graduate like him would want to become a laborer. Without battling an eye, the young man says he’s treating his job as merely a break, a “year off” before he goes in for the kill in the corporate universe again.
Pity his comrades who have no such futures to aspire to; same goes to Ranran’s neighbors whom she dreams of as bumbling quirks in a reverie about parading her dress along the corridor of her tenement — a presaging of the good news she will inevitably receive later, a stroke of luck that wouldn’t befall the others. This negligence is consistent with how the low are left nameless (the prostitute is never called by name, even if the character is listed as “Zhang Hui” in the credits) and how the Tangjialing community is merely a backdrop to the three characters’ lives, its erasure (along with its down-and-out inhabitants) from history only returned to in a brief onscreen text before the credits roll at the end. Today and Tomorrow certainly reveals an uncertain future — for Chinese filmmaking and Chinese society in general.
Asian Future, Tokyo International Film Festival
Production Company: Beijing Jiamao Pictures Television Culture
Director: Yang Huilong
Cast: Tang Kailin, Shu Yao, Wang Daotie, Yin Shanshan
Producer: Wang Yaxi
Executive Producer: Ursula Wolte
Screenwriter: Lin Shiwei
Director of Cinematography: Sun Tian
Editor: Hugues Danois
Music: Henri Huang
Sound Director: Liu Yang
October 10, 2013
Einstein and Einstein
10/6/2013 by Elizabeth Kerr
The Bottom Line
It’s not easy growing up female in contemporary China in Cao Baoping’s bittersweet family drama.
Cao Baoping’s drama revolves around a middle school girl who struggles with exclusion and lowered expectations.
A 13-year-old middle school girl struggles with exclusion and lowered expectations in Einstein and Einstein, a critical but bloated look at coming of age female in modern China. Cao Baoping’s empathetic film is a modest one that takes its sweet time getting to where it’s going, but it’s filled with small moments that add up to a moderately insightful condemnation of hundreds of years of child rearing, even if it’s a familiar argument.
Anchored by a strong performance from it’s young star Sophie, Einstein and Einstein is the kind of contemporary drama that connects because of its relevance and resonance, as well as working as a peek inside modern urban China.
Li Wan (Sophie) is an only daughter until middle school when her father’s second wife gives birth to a son. Long before shuffled off to live with her grandparents, Li Wan is kept in the dark about the boy’s existence altogether and suspects nothing when her distant father starts showering her with gifts, one of which is a puppy that Li Wan initially rejects (and treats horribly). Of course, the dog wins her over and a tight bond forms, and of course, the dog is ripped from her life. To describe Li Wan’s ordeal with the dog as symbolic of larger family issues is an understatement. The dog, Einstein, also serves as the final, gruesome symbol of just how desperate Li Wan is for her dad’s approval and affection.
One of the most telling segments revolves around a business banquet Li Wan is forced to attend with her father. When the boss asks her what she likes to read he pooh-poohs her choice of Stephen Hawking and turns his attention to Zhao Zhao reciting classic Chinese poetry. Li Wan’s frustration is palpable. It’s miserable stuff, but Cao leaves room for a happy ending that suggests the modernization of China is an iterative process that will trickle down to the Li Wans of the world — eventually.
A Window on Asian Cinema
Cast: Sophie, Zhang Xueying, Guo Jinglin
Director: Cao Baoping
No rating, 119 minutes
Letters From the South
10/6/2013 by Clarence Tsui
The Bottom Line
An uneven but contemplative collection of migrant tales.
In a portmanteau of six short films, Southeast Asian filmmakers explore the links between the Chinese diaspora and the Middle Kingdom itself.
Letters are only meaningful when they are meant to be two-way communication – and the significance of the six shorts in the omnibus film Letters from the South could be gauged by their abilities to contemplate the ever-shifting relationship between the Chinese diaspora (”the South”) and China (the roots in “the North”). Posting a mix of melancholic and comic questions, this Malaysian-produced portmanteau offers substance rendered in a range of styles, and will inevitably be of interest to film programs examining either China or migration issues.
The six shorts could be roughly divided into three groups: the first pair, Aditya Assarat’s Now Now Now and Midi Z’s Burial Clothes sees different generations casting glances northwards. Assarat’s Thai-Chinese schoolgirl reflects on how her mainland Chinese cousin has transformed herself from a shy nobody into her current alluring, artistic self; for the Myanmar-Chinese director Z, it’s all about the hopes of returning home, as a granddaughter helps realize his grandfather’s final wishes by bringing the funereal attire he left in his ancestral village back in China.
Meanwhile, Singaporeans Sun Koh and Royston Tan offer tales closer to home. The former’s New New Panda using a pending Chinese takeover of a Singaporean radio station to reflect on how one of its veteran production staffers positions himself culturally; the latter’s Popiah, which looks at how kinship is fostered through traditional cooking.
The final two episodes are leaps into fantasy: in a whirl of quick edits of nocturnal images in the titular Malaysian city, Tan Chui Mui’s A Night in Malacca reflects on the possibility of revisiting the nostalgic sentiments of exiled Chinese writer Yu Dafu; as he described how memories subside in the tropical Southeast Asian heat.
But at least Tan’s conversing with someone or something with her entry: the same couldn’t be said of Malaysian-born Tsai Ming-liang’s Walking on Water, which is nothing more than a love letter to his hometown of Kuching. It’s a shame the film ends with a letdown since the what comes before shapes up to be a contemplative collection of affecting migrant tales.
A Window on Asian Cinema, Busan International Film Festival
Production Company: Da Huang Pictures
Directors: Aditya Assarat, Royston Tan, Midi Z, Sun Koh, Tan Chui Mui, Tsai Ming-liang
Cast: Lee Kang-sheng, Lulu Huang, Wu Kexi
In Thai, Mandarin, Teochew, Cantonese and English
October 1, 2013
September 30, 2013
Michelle Yeoh makes the standard-issue ingredients and saccharine flavors go down in director Gina Kim’s predictable foodie film.
Standard-issue ingredients get folded into “Final Recipe,” a largely English-lingo heartwarmer about a high-school student entering a “MasterChef”-type contest and finding his long-lost father along the way. The always welcome presence of Michelle Yeoh makes the saccharine flavors go down slightly better, yet there’s no getting around the feeling that helmer Gina Kim (“Never Forever”) was doing this for money rather than out of a passion for the product. Given the popularity of food-related pics, it’s likely “Recipe” will find a decent number of middlebrow consumers, though no one will mistake this for anything but empty calories.
Crotchety grandpa Hao (Chang Tseng) faces the closure of his restaurant in Singapore because he refuses to adapt to modern palates. Grandson Mark (singer-actor Henry Lau) gets the bright idea of entering the Final Recipe competition in Shanghai so he can use the prize money to keep the family afloat, but he has to hide his scheme from the old man, whose one ambition is for the kid to get an engineering degree.
An embarrassing montage of Mark taking in the sights of Shanghai, eyes agape and baseball cap askew, segues to the tryouts, where, since he never thought to submit his own application, he pretends to be a Russian contestant who didn’t show up. The competition is hosted by Julia Lee (Yeoh), looking to rejuvenate her hubby, master chef David Chen (Chin Han), who’s been kind of down recently — could it be because Julia is barren? Might he be thinking of the family he left behind in Singapore 15 years earlier? After impressing Daniel Boulud with a perfect omelet, Mark wins a place in the cookoff, teaming with predictably diva-ish contestants yet upstaging their theatrics with grace under pressure and honest down-home cooking.
Admittedly, the chow looks great, but the surrounding foam, metaphorically speaking, is beaten stiffer and glossier than egg whites in a meringue. Dialogue and situations are equally predictable, and editing seems to have already figured out how to fit in commercial breaks for inevitable TV rotation. Presumably the South Korean and Thai producers decided that shooting in English would maximize international sales, though the line deliveries don’t come trippingly from everyone’s lips (Lau and Han are notable exceptions).
Shooting was largely done in Thailand, and visuals are notably slick, combining the polish of high-end cooking shows with the feel of a tourism-board ad. The occasional use of sappy tricks like a slo-mo dash in the rain only reinforces the material’s soapy nature.
Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (Culinary Cinema), Sept. 21, 2013. (Also in Hawaii Film Festival — opener.) Running time: 97 MIN.
(South Korea-Thailand) A CJ Entertainment presentation of a Grand Elephant, Bang Singapore production. (International sales: Fortissimo, Amsterdam.) Produced by Yeonu Choi, Jeong Tae-sung, Steven Nam, Gina Kim. Co-producer, Khan Kwon. Executive producer, Miky Lee, Mike Suh, Keiko Bang, Michael Werner, Michelle Yeoh.
Directed by Gina Kim. Screenplay, George Huang, based on a screenplay by Gina Kim. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Kim Young-ho, Kim Jun-young; editor, Steve M. Choe; music, Mok Young-jin; production designer, Darcy Scanlin; costume designer, Chantika Kongsillawat; sound, Sung Ji-young; sound designer, Hong Ye-young; associate producer, Pak Chaisana.
Michelle Yeoh, Henry Lau, Chin Han, Chang Tseng, Lori Tan Chinn, Bobby Lee, Lika Minamoto, Aden Young, Byron Bishop, Patrick Teoh, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Daniel Boulud. (English, Mandarin dialogue)
September 27, 2013
9/26/2013 by Clarence Tsui
The Bottom Line
A mild, feel-good tale about reconciliation of three generations of a cookery-gifted clan.
Humility, harmony and a lot of heart: the three things that Final Recipe’s protagonists discovered to be essential to a good dish are also what shape the film itself. Steering clear of the boisterous aesthetics of many a past masterchef-contest films – Stephen Chow’s God of Cookery, say, or Jeon Yun-su’s manga adaptation Le Grand Chef – Korean director Gina Kim has delivered a mild, comforting oeuvre which channels a reaffirmation of cultural roots and traditional bonds within a crust of a family-reunited melodrama.
While the presence of Michelle Yeoh (who’s also one of the film’s many executive producers) would help raise Final Recipe’s profile among Chinese-speaking audiences in both Asia and in the US – especially when the film, though taking place among Chinese characters in Singapore and Shanghai, is nearly entirely in English – the on-screen gastronomic pleasures would also ease the film into the now burgeoning food-film chain. Its appearance at San Sebastian Film Festival’s culinary cinema section, to be followed by an opening-film slot at the Hawaii International Film Festival on Oct. 10, is bound to just the first outings in similarly-themed programs, mirroring – to a lesser scale, maybe – the travels of films such as Mostly Martha.
Playing the mastermind of a successful, long-running cooking-competition show – or, as the character Julia is described in the film, the gastronomic “grandmaster” – Yeoh is central to the proceedings. But more as a catalyst, mind, as Final Recipe is essentially a film about generational schisms among the men in a clan: the major ingredient in the formula here is Mark (a vibrant turn from the Canadian-Chinese K-pop star Henry Lau), a Singaporean high-school student whose enthusiasm and gift in preparing food are frowned upon by his chef-grandfather Hao (Chang Tseng), who single-handedly raised him with hopes of getting the boy into university rather than taking over his crumbling restaurant.
Running against past mainstream narratives of scions refusing to (and often finally relenting in) taking over a dated family business, Mark’s enthusiasm lies solely on learning his grandfather’s recipes and admiring, from afar, the career of David Chan (Singaporean-born Chin Han, The Dark Knight and Contagion), an established culinary mega-star of Julia’s Shanghai-based TV show – and a man who also recounts of having to rebel against a vanished masterchef-father who tried the utmost in trying to derail his aspirations for a career in the kitchen.
With his grandfather falling ill and his eatery getting nearer to be shuttered for good – partly due to the old man’s open disdain for customers who disagree with his self-proclaimed “real cooking” – Mark’s gambit lies with using what should have been his university fees and fly off in the hope of winning the $1 million cash prize in the Julia-David “Final Recipe” competition. Taking the place of a Russian contestant who doesn’t turn up, the teenager deploys his youthful spunk (cooking an omelette over burning documents when the stove doesn’t work) and inventiveness (revitalizing the pepper paste in the Korean rice dish bibimbap, or serving noodles as dumplings) to emerge into the final showdown with David – a clash which, as Julia’s introduction illustrates, would look at “what family tastes like”.
It’s certainly not that difficult to guess what the film’s big reveal is, especially when David tells Mark – or “Dmitri”, as he’s known – during a brief meeting in the market that “if you’re my kid, I’ll be very very proud”. But it’s the expectation of reconciliation and reunion that drives Final Recipe – it’s the antithesis of the Gordon Ramsay-style reality TV spectacles – an advocacy of warm, interpersonal concordwhich glosses over some of the logical flaws in the back stories which led to Mark’s and David’s agony and angst.
Despite having her own screenplay reworked by George Huang – a fact which explains Final Recipe resembling a director making a big leap into mainstream-style story-plotting – Kim has shown herself still able to mine some of the themes in Never Forever, her Vera Farmiga-starring 2007 Sundance hit about an American woman recruiting a Korean immigrant to impregnate her so as to save her marriage with her Korean-American husband. Final Recipe is all about turning one’s back on middling cultural fusion and returning to one’s roots. The once London-based Julia would find her success back in China, and so would the Singapore-raised Mark find inspiration (from the Shanghainese street snacks which mesmerized him), his big break and estranged parent there; the young chef’s earthly dishes – derided by an American connoisseur as “peasant cooking” – rings in greater acclaim (from the Asian judges) than the fancy French pretensions of his fellow Japanese contestant Kaori (Lika Minamoto).
Backed with a polished production design and more than competent technical values, Final Recipe – which is backed by South Korea’s CJ Entertainment – is Kim’s ticket to prove her credentials for entry into her home country’s commercial filmmaking arena. And with the Seoul-based major now flexing its international co-production muscles, they might look at Kim with some confidence as she conjures a non-exotic piece out of a territory-trotting narrative, where every place is made to seem like home.
Venue: Online screener (San Sebastian International Film Festival, Culinary Zinema section)
Production Company: CJ Entertainment, in a presentation co-associated with Bang Singapore and A Grand Elephant Production
Director: Gina Kim
Cast: Henry Lau, Michelle Yeoh, Chin Han, Chang Tseng
Producers: Gina Kim, Steven Nam, Yeonu Choi, Miky Lee
Executive Producers: Jeong Tae-sung, Mike Suh, Jonathan Kim, Keiko Bang, Michael J Werner, Michelle Yeoh
Screenwriter: George Huang, based on a screenplay by Gina Kim
Director of Photography: Kim Young-ho, Kim Jun-young
Editor: Steve M. Choe
Music: Mok Young Jin
Production Designer: Darcy Scanlin
In English and Mandarin
International Sales: Fortissimo Films
No ratings, 98 minutes
September 24, 2013
9/24/2013 by Clarence Tsui
The Bottom Line
A riveting documentary that speaks volumes about mainland China’s official family-planning policies and the insensitivity they breed among apparatchiks — and the pain among the masses.
The mind-boggling thing about Xu Huijin’s new documentary Mothers doesn’t lie with the the cynicism which drives low-level apparatchiks in coaxing or coercing women in a small Chinese village to be sterilized. What astounds is the officials’ lack of qualms in allowing their modus operandi to be recorded on tape — they are shown agitating for a longtime refusenik’s children to be kicked out of school so as to get her to relent, and later joke about just grabbing her to go under the knife in the van they’re travelling in — and their on-screen admission how their work is more about fulfilling quotas than the state’s high-sounding population-policy objectives.
This indifference about having their indifference and inhumanity caught on camera illustrates how such dysfunction is now very much ingrained into the bureaucratic or even social psyche; what could have been positioned as villains in melodrama are now shown as just banal servants to a cold political order. And when the film also features the cadres as toddler-loving beings while off duty — one of them oversees a temple commemorating a goddess of child-giving, another dotes on his baby at home when he’s not trying to get women sterilized at work — it’s evident that Xu’s indictment lies with the system rather than just individual antagonists.
Revealing yet restraining from simplistic judgements, Mothers — who has just won second prize at the annual Chinese Documentary Festival in Hong Kong on Sep. 20 — is poised to feature in more festivals and international human-rights-themed programs, after its appearance at home at the Yunnan Multi Culture Visual Festival and then abroad at the Jeonju International Film Festival and then the Sheffield Doc/Fest in Britain.
In the film’s prologue, Xu appears briefly on camera as his voiceover explains how his mother had told him how he, as a second child, “wasn’t supposed to be born”. But he was, amidst a time when the Chinese government was frantic in implementing their family planning policies: city-dwellers could only have one child, and rural citizens have the leeway of having two. Extra babies would bring about a fine; but for those living in villages, women who have given birth to two children are legally bound for sterilization — and just like many of Beijing’s directives, this opens the way to confusion and chaos on the ground, as municipal officials demand party cadres set a definite quota of women which have to be operated on every year.
And Mothers is about how a group of low-level cadres in a small hamlet in the northwestern Chinese province of Shanxi struggle to fulfill that request, as if it’s a divine message they could not defy — a religious metaphor brought to mind when the film begins with images of a bombastic rite celebrating the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Leading the way is Zhang Qingmei (pictured), the village’s “director of women’s care” who is at once the officer responsible for getting women sterilized, and also the shaman taking care of the local fertility-themed temple: showing the director and his camera around the shrine, she freely talked about Mao as having “attained sainthood” and is “akin to an emperor” — descriptions which could readily be seen as reactionary, superstitious talk in official party discourse.
Zhang’s beliefs in Mao is just part of the retrogressive attitudes being perpetuated in the village: the film also shows children singing a ditty about a man who tries to kill himself for not being able to “buy a wife”, while the deputy village head Zhang Guohong (yes, the people actually allowed themselves to be named in full) deploys every trick in his bureaucrats’ book in forcing reluctant young mothers to be operated on. What this means is constant bargaining with his charges about the approval of hukou,a domestic registration without which individuals could not enjoy full citizens’ rights in their locale; in another instance, the man is seen actually offering to pay the women to get operated on, so that he could come up with the numbers as dictated to him from above.
With its abundance of telling DV-filmed sequences about the desperation of these officials, and an edit which brings everything together as if it’s a documentary-style thriller, Mothers offers a riveting viewing and a revealing picture of the pain brought about by insensitive political dictums. And the torment can be very real: the documentary ends with the officials’ elusive quarry, a young woman called Rongrong, finally apprehended (probably because of her children being suspended from their studies) and limping her way off the cadres’ van, and then lying sullen and pained in bed.
Xu’s final voiceover — delivered over a static image of the brown, rustic landscape in which the village is located – stated how a leading Chinese government official has hinted at a possible rethink over the now almost three-decades-old “one-child policy”. For the mothers in Mothers and the society they are supposed to be part of, it’s perhaps too late.
Venue: Chinese Documentary Festival, Hong Kong
Production Companies: EVO Productions, CNEX Foundation Limited
Director: Xu Huijing
Producers: Ben Tsiang, Hai Zhiqiang
Associate Producer: Warren Chien
Executive Producers: Shijian, Chang Chao-wei, Ruby Chen
Cinematographer: Xu Huijing
Editors: Liao Qingsong, Xu Huijing, Huang Yiling
Music: Liu Qi
International Distributor: CNEX Foundation Limited
No ratings, 68 minutes
September 23, 2013
Emergency Room China
9/23/2013 by Clarence Tsui
The Bottom Line
A gritty, low-budget documentary offering yet another nuanced look at how civil servants — well-meaning medical staff this time — operate amidst red tape and rough and tumble members of the Chinese public.
More than a decade after completing his directorial debut Housie Township, Zhou Hao has established himself as one of mainland China’s most important documentary makers with films that survey the different aspects of how the state works, and also how those working for the state navigate (and exploit) a system addled with fundamental flaws.
Starting in 2010 with The Transition Period (which tracks the daily life of a municipal-level party cadre — complete with sequences about dodgy dealings and all — and then in 2011 and 2012 with the Cop Shop diptych (which explore how police officers perform their duties with a very flexible approach to citizens’ rights), Zhou is seemingly working his way down the power chain. With Emergency Room China — which just won the Best Feature award at Hong Kong’s annual Chinese Documentary Festival on Saturday — he has reached the frontline of social schisms with a look at life among doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and ever-returning patients at a hospital in the southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou.
With its revealing observations about the circumstances in which the ER medics operate, Zhou’s film can be read as a microcosmic view of the problems in mainland China in general: while red tape bounds hospital staff from doing their best to meet their patients’ needs, spiraling social problems add to their woes as they deal with contraband-liquor-related fatalities, a drug addict falling to his death in the presence of undercover cops, people ringing hotlines for help and then refusing to be transported to the hospital, and phony patients (or hypochondriacs?) who hang around the ER every day, requesting medication for imaginary illnesses and talking about pills as if they are bread and butter.
Largely devoid of voiceovers or expositional text providing a context in which these real-life characters go about their business — and hospitals are indeed businesses, given how they are self-financed to the extent that, for example, ambulance drivers and medics earn a living directly from fees paid by patients using their services — Emergency Room China is the gritty observational-style mainland Chinese documentary that is expected to travel widely to festivals. Having first premiered at the Chinese Visual Festival in London in May before returning to Asia with two screenings in Hong Kong last week, the film could well follow The Transition Period (which was picked up by dGenerate Films) to odd bookings in documentary programs in the U.S.
It’s a challenging film, still, both in terms of engaging with the documentation of the mundane and its potentially disturbing imagery of the dying and the dead. But Zhou’s heart as a filmmaker is very much throbbing on his sleeve, a spirit brought to life with the help of Peng Xin’s deft editing of the raw material. The film’s minor aesthetic pitfalls — debate could ensue about how Zhou’s presence might have dictated some confessional chit-chats, and hindered the development of other threads — are easily overshadowed by that enthusiasm.
Venue: Chinese Documentary Festival, Hong Kong
Production Companies: 21stCentury Media, Shanghai Media Group
Director: Zhou Hao
Producers: Shen Hao, Gan Chao
Cinematographers: Qiu Haorun, Zhou Hao
Editor: Peng Xin
In Mandarin and Cantonese
No ratings, 89 minutes
By Mark Adams
Dir: Gina Kim. South Korea-Thailand. 2013. 98mins
A warm-hearted story of cooking and families, the glossily made Final Recipe is a frothy, engaging and gently moving story of a family driven apart and finally reunited by a passion for food. Shot in English (with only a couple of scenes in Mandarin) and with the ever-charismatic Michelle Yeoh on-board as both star and executive producer, it has the qualities to play well as well as being a solid seller.
Set against the backdrop of a televised ‘Master Chef’ competition, the film plays on expected notions of family, love and loyalty (with a dash of melodrama added to give it more taste) while also lovingly filming food as it is prepared. Mouth-watering at times, the beauty of the dishes themselves are almost reason enough to make the film enjoyable mainstream fun, though it is given extra weight thanks for a series of enjoyable lead performances.
Gina Kim shoots with a good deal of energy, mixing up the laughs with the pathos and the food with the fun, and making good use of Shanghai and Singapore locations. And while Final Recipe may well, at heart, be all rather predictable, it is also engaging and gently entertaining.
The film opens in Singapore where renowned but rather grumpy chef Hao Chan (Chang Tseng) is struggling to keep his restaurant going. He is desperate for his grandson Mark (a charming Henry Lau) to study engineering and not become a chef, but little does he know tat at heart Mark simply loves food and wants to be like his grandfather and his father (who vanished years earlier) and work as a chef.
When Hao is taken ill, Mark decides to go to Shanghai and try and enter the high-profile televised Master Chef competition, where the winner from hordes of entries wins the chance to cook-off against legendary chef David Chen (Chin Han) to try and win $1 million. He blunders his way into the competition having not realised he needed to formerly apply taking the place (and name_ of a Russian competitor named Dmitri who failed to turn up.
Julia Lee (Yeoh), executive producer of the show and who is married to David Chen, whose career she launched when he was a humble chef from Singapore, begins to watch over Mark and starts to see his talent. She also unearths the truth of his background and his connection (guess what?) between Mark and David. As Mark makes his way through the cookery competition rounds the scene is ultimately set for a showdown between the two chefs.
The heart of Final Recipe may be pure melodrama, but it is a glossy and enjoyable journey. Henry Lau is engagingly fresh-faced and enthusiastic as Mark, while Michelle Yeoh is sheer class as a woman who comes to realise that she needs to bring a family together to heal a rift that she had been part of.
There are some delightful laughs (as well as cool cooking) in the central section as Mark has to team with three other competitors (played by Aden Young, Bobby Lee, Lika Minamoto) to cook as a team, and while Chang Tseng and Lori Tan Chinn (as Mrs Wang, who tends Hao and helps look after the restaurant) plays things much more broadly (and likely appeal to an older demographic) the film is at its core a quite tender and moving tale of a family finally coming together.
Production companies: Grand Elephant, Bang Singapore
International sales: Fortissimo Films, www.fortissimo.nl / CJ Entertainment, www.cjent.co.kr
Producer: Yeonu Choi
Executive producers: Miky Lee, Mike Suh, Keiko Bang, Michael Werner, Michelle Yeoh
Screenplay: George Huang, based on a story by Gina Kim
Cinematography: Young-Ho Kim, Jun-Young Kim
Editor: Steve M Choe
Co-producer: Khan Kwon
Production designer: Darcy Scanlin
Music: Young Jin Mok
Main cast: Michelle Yeoh, Henry Lau, Chin Han, Chang Tseng, Lori Tan Chinn, Aden Young, Bobby Lee, Lika Minamoto
September 20, 2013
My Lucky Star
9/20/2013 by Frank Scheck
The Bottom Line
The luminous Zhang Ziyi is the saving grace of this overly silly and frenetic spy movie parody.
Recalling everything from the ‘60s-era Matt Helm and Flint spy spoofs to such modern-day variations as the Austin Powers series, the Chinese import My Lucky Star at least provides one element of originality by giving a female spin to the genre. This tale of a mild-mannered young woman who becomes involved in an international conspiracy by teaming up with a master spy has an engagingly frothy quality that makes it go down easy. But its overall familiarity should make it a hard sell for American audiences despite the luminous presence of Zhang Ziyi (The Grandmaster, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) in the starring role.
The film, being released in North America day-and-date with China, is the first Chinese feature to be directed by an American woman, Dennie Gordon, whose previous credits include many TV series and the feature Joe Dirt.
Reprising the character she played in 2009’s successful Sophie Revenge, Zhang plays an unsuccessful comic book writer and illustrator who makes her living as a travel agent. Much of her day is spent drawing and daydreaming, her elaborate scenarios depicted onscreen via graphic panels and animated segments.
When she wins a trip to Singapore, her fantasies come to life as she meets the dashing secret agent David Yan (Leehom Wang, of Lust, Caution) who’s in pursuit of the “Lucky Star,” a diamond so large that it can apparently be used for destructive purposes. The villainous Charlize Wong (Terri Kwan) plans to use it to blow up Bermuda — the reasons for which, at least for this viewer, were lost in translation.
Sophie soon finds herself embroiled in a series of life-or-death situations, with her helpless bumbling often requiring her to be saved by the ever-resourceful David. Along the way, she attempts to help him in various ways that often exploit her considerable physical charms, most notably when she poses as a stripper to seduce a ruthless arms dealer.
Director Gordon stages the proceedings in glossily slick fashion, with the film benefiting from the visual allure of the two leads as well as such exotic locations as Hong Kong, Singapore and Macao’s Venetian Resort Hotel.
But with a running time of nearly two hours, the overall silliness wears thin rather quickly, and the reductive nature of Zhang’s lovestruck Sophie, who seems mostly interested in whether David is romantically interested in the female villain, doesn’t exactly make her a feminist ideal.
Opens Sept. 20 (China Lion)
Production: Bona International Film Group
Cast: Zhang Yiyi, Leehom Wang, Terri Kwan, Jack Kao, Zheng Kai, Yao Chen, Ruby Lin, Ada Choi
Director: Dennie Gordon
Screenwriters: Amy Snow, Chris Chow, Hai Huang, Yao Meng
Producers: Zhang Ziyi, Lucas Ling, Beaver Kwei, Second Chan, William Cheng
Executive producers: Yu Dong, Zhang Ziyi, Jeffrey Chan
Director of photography: Armando Salas
Editors: Zack Arnold, Ka-Fai Cheung
Production designer: Second Chan
Costume designer: Yi Tang
Composer: Nathan Wang
Not rated, 114 min.
Related article: My Lucky Star: Slapstick rom-com fizzles (CNA)
September 19, 2013
Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon
Raising the bar sky-high for Chinese blockbuster entertainment, Tsui Hark’s “Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon” lays out a gargantuan feast of 3D spectacle, high-wire martial arts, splendiferous period aesthetics, intelligent sleuthing and even an ancestor of “Pacific Rim’s” kaiju. A prequel to Tsui’s 2010 hit, “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame,” this mystery-actioner-costumer is energized by a youthful cast and proves more cohesive than the overwrought original. Anticipated fall release is set to raise a tidal wave in domestic B.O., supplemented by monster ancillary potential, though the voluminous historical background may intimidate foreign audiences.
The first production shot in stereoscopic 3D by Huayi Brothers Media, and Tsui’s second 3D project since “Flying Swords of Dragon Gate” (2011), “Young Detective Dee” successfully uses the technology to bring to life the ancient splendor of the Tang Dynasty, an age comparable to the Renaissance for its cultural diversity, international business activity and artistic freedom. Few Chinese films have amassed such a cornucopia of period artifice, yet Tsui also draws on the era’s corruption and political tyranny to hold up a mirror to contempo realities, while his use of political subtext here is subtler and more macabre than usual.
Fire was the central motif of “Phantom Flame,” and as the title of “Sea Dragon” would suggest, water is the key element here. The yarn is set in 665 A.D., during the joint reign of Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) and Emperor Gaozong (Sheng Chien). The country is at war with the Buyeo kingdom, and during one of their sea battles, the Tang navy is crushed by a monster from the ocean depths. Rumors spread that the Sea Dragon (the Chinese equivalent of Poseidon) has been provoked, and Wu orders an investigation by Yuchi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng, “Painted Skin: The Resurrection”), head of the Dalisi, an organization tasked with upholding law and order.
Like Barry Levinson’s “Young Sherlock Holmes” (1985), “Young Detective Dee” revisits a master sleuth’s first case to uncover formative life influences. Di Renjie, or Dee (Mark Chao of “Monga,” replacing Andy Lau), arrives in the capital, Luoyang, to serve as a Dalisi magistrate. Lipreading a plot to kidnap Yin Ruiji (Angelababy) the capital’s most beautiful courtesan, he rushes to her rescue, only to be beaten to it by a Kappa, a green, scaly creature that vanishes into a lotus pond.
At nightfall, the Kappa reappears to Yin, who recognizes him as her lover, Squire Yuan Zhen (Ian Kim). A handsome and cultivated scholar, he’s been missing for months from his family teahouse. His transformation offers clues to a court conspiracy that implicates the Dondoers, a fishing tribe living on an island teeming with bats and Tryffids.
The plot cooks up various gimmicks including parasitic infestation and uretic homeopathy, but but unlike the runaway ideas present in some of Tsui’s other works, these devices slot neatly into the script’s overall scheme, also serving as apt metaphors for the corrupt aristocracy. Though the film could be trimmed down from its 133-minute running time, Tsui and co-scribe Chang Chia-lu (who penned the first “Dee”) have exercised greater discipline in crafting a mostly linear narrative. In their hands, the emergence of the titular Sea Dragon delivers a payoff of “Release the Kraken!”-like proportions.
Amid action that flies as swiftly as a Ninja dart, Tsui finds room to to nurture a bromance between Yuchi and Dee, and weaves in a number of amusing anecdotal episodes, as when Dee uses his deductive genius to make prison doctor Shatuo Zhong (Lin Gengxin) his sidekick. Coming off as brilliant, playful and smug in a boyish way, Chao turns out to be a major asset in Tsui’s fledgling franchise, and reps an improvement on Lau’s drily earnest Dee. A solid thesp who rarely overacts, Feng brings quiet integrity to the role of the stern enforcer whose arrogance gives way to admiration for Dee.
Although it’s the catalyst for all the tumult, the beauty-and-the-beast romance of Yin and Yuan remains a secondary matter, as neither Angelababy nor Kim possesses enough personality beyond doll-like prettiness to make the characters’ plight moving. The pivotal figure remains Empress Wu, whose pagoda-high coiffure suggests a gauche rejoinder to the idea of phallic domination; magisterially played by Lau, she could launch a thousand ships with one raise of a pencil-thin eyebrow.
Veteran action director Yuen Bun recaptures the style of gravity-defying wire-fu that Tsui helped popularize in the early ’90s, enhanced with 3D that works seamlessly in the fight scenes, but proves effective in the blurry underwater sequences. For all the elaborate technique on display, the fight scenes do drag a little, enough to make the moves look repetitive.
Production values are lavish. Heady crane shots abound in Choi Sung-fai’s sweeping cinematography, while the richly wrought sets, costumes and murals look radiant throughout.
Reviewed at UA iSquare, Kowloon, Sept. 17, 2013. Running time: 133 MIN. Original title: “Di Renjie zhi shendu longhuang”
(China-Hong Kong) A Huayi Brothers Media, Huayi Brothers Intl. Co. (in China)/Emperor Motion Pictures (in Hong Kong) release of a Huayi Brothers Media, Huayi Brothers Intl. Co. presentation of a Film Workshop Co., Huayi Brothers Media production, in association with China Film Co-Prod. (International sales: Huayi Brothers Intl. Co., Beijing.) Produced by Wang Zhonglei, Nansum Shi, Chen Kuo-fu, Tsui Hark. Executive producers, Wang Zhongjun. Co-producers, Zhang Dajun, James Tsim.
Directed by Tsui Hark. Screenplay, Chang Chia-lu, Tsui, based on the story by Chen Kuo-fu, Tsui Hark. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Choi Sung-fai; editor, Yu Baiyang; music, Kenji Kawai; production designer, Bruce Yu; art director, Kenneth Mak; costume designer, Lee Pik-kwan; sound (Dolby Atmos, Auros 3D)/re-recording mixer, Kinson Tsang; choreographer, Gao Shan; special effects, Lee Kwan-long; Digital Intermediate supervisor, Lee Yong-gi; visual effects supervisor, Kim Wook; visual effects, Dexter Digital, Mofac Studio, 25 Frame, Weapons Co., Cubic Pictures, Part 2, Illumina, Shangyang Digital Co.; action choreographers, Yuen Bun, Lam Fung; stereographers, Kevin Lau, Gigo Lee; associate producers, Bernard Yang, Helen Li, Addi Ng; assistant director, Michael Fong; casting, Mo Lan.
Mark Chao, Feng Shaofeng, Angelababy , Carina Lau, Lin Gengxin, Ian Kim, Aloys Chen Kun, Hu Dong, Sheng Chien. (Mandarin, Dondo dialect dialogue)
Related article: Young Detective Dee: Chinese fantasy done right (CNA)